Belarus: Let no-one laugh in Lukashenko's madhouse
1 July 2011
On the occasion of the Belarusian Independence Day celebrations on 3 July, anyone who dares to applaud Alexander Lukashenko risks being sent to jail. The dictator’s regime, which is in a desperate situation, is well aware that irony is the only weapon left to its opponents.
Alexander Lukashenko, the boss of Belarus, may well be an illiterate peasant, but he knows a thing or two about irony and how harmful it can be to those in power. Armed with this knowledge, he has decided to implement a number of measures that will guarantee him a place in the despots’ hall of fame.
At next Sunday’s [3 July] Indepenence Day celebrations, anyone who dares to applaud his speech, the troops on parade, or, worse still, agents of the secret service, which in Belarus is still called the KGB, will be arrested.
The only applause that will be allowed will be for veterans and ex-servicemen. “We will intervene in all other cases," announces deputy police chief Igor Essiev, who appears visibly pleased by the prospect of yet another dragnet while he turns his suspicious gaze on passers-by in October Square.
Armed with their handcuffs and truncheons, Essiev and his agents, who appear determined to give no one the benefit of the doubt, make a habit of conducting random identity checks on young people and old ladies carrying home their groceries. And although they are unwilling to admit it, they would also like to impose a ban on smiling, which is another gesture that is now beginning to irritate the regime.
The fact is that smiling and clapping is about all the Belarusians can do to express their opposition to an increasingly authoritarian government. Following presidential elections on 19 December of last year, all the candidates who ran against Lukashenko along with a thousand political activists have been charged with a fantastic variety of offences and thrown in jail until their guilt can be determined in secret court hearings where the verdict is always a foregone conclusion.
On occasion, some of the police start laughing
However, neither Lukashenko or his entourage have any idea of the extent of popular exasperation with the abuse of police power and the economic crisis which has pushed up the cost of living to unbearable levels [see below]. And this is the context for the latest playful protest technique which is now in vogue. The word usually goes out on the Internet, which the KGB remains unable to control in spite of their best efforts.
The demonstrators arrange to meet in front of the enormous Palace of the Republic in Oktyabrskaya Square, or the President’s enormous Soviet era residence on the Engels Avenue. They are careful to stand well apart and to avoid carrying placards or chanting slogans, so they cannot be charged with demonstrating. All they do is applaud and smile. On occasion, some of the more courageous ones will make a point of deliberately looking at the police while laughing. Then they will all laugh heartily and clap, before starting over again.
This is a source of considerable annoyance to the police, but until now, even under the reign of Lukashenko, laughing is not considered a crime. Some of the police try to order them to stop, but the young people continue laughing and the waves of laughter spread. The more uncomfortable the police become, the more they laugh. Curious onlookers appear at windows and start laughing in their turn.
The mirth spreads to waiters in the nearby cafes, and teenage girls heading home from school. On occasion, some of the police start laughing, until they are silenced by angry looks from their superior officers. "It is not much, but at least it allows us to count the number of people who have had enough. And there is quite a lot of us." points out Andrei Dmitri, age 27, of the "Say the Truth" movement for civil rights.
Dmitri knows that the underground campaign is not without risk. Following a protest on 19 December, he was arrested and spent 40 days in the "Amerikanka" KGB barracks, where he saw Lukashenko’s opponents arrive one after the other in handcuffs – among them, the 74-year-old poet Vladimir Neklyavev, who was carried in bundled up in a quilt.
Living like characters in a novel by George Orwell
The cells are filthy, the toilets stink, the guards are violent, and there are agents provocateurs disguised as prisoners. "But prison stories are all the same, and they are not the only reason why the civilised world should intervene.” Then he explains how a judge showed him a file containing all of his emails, text messages and transcriptions of his phone calls. "They had also intercepted conversations that I had at home with my wife. They had everything, absolutely everything including things you whisper in bed when the lights are out."
Now, along with several hundred other citizens of Minsk, Dmitri is awaiting trial on corruption charges. The legal proceedings will be monitored by the Belarus Helsinki Committee, whose members operate from a seventh floor office in the city centre and are apparently free to go about their business.
Their leader, 70-year-old Garry Pogonjajlo has the look of a man who has seen worse situations. "I was born in the Gulag because my parents did not agree with Stalin. I know that the only reason why they have not arrested me is because I am a member of an international organisation. But things are changing. Marx would describe the current situation as pre-revolutionary. The people are about to explode and Putin has understood this. Moscow continues to prevent Lukashenko from going under, but it keeps him at a distance: on some occasions he is pampered and offered loans, and on others he is threatened with gas and electricity cuts. Moscow also knows that if the economic crisis gets any worse the regime will sink like a stone. There is no denying that everyone would be better off if the west woke up to this situation."
In the meantime, people are living like characters in a novel by George Orwell. The other day Andre Dmitri gestured silently to his wife to follow him. He took her to the park, where they found a place that was sufficiently noisy to prevent eavesdropping. She was expecting him to announce plans for another demonstration. He smiles as recalls what he told her: "I only wanted to say that I love you. But I don’t dare say it at home. There are too many people listening to us."